Fitting Big Ideas Into Small Packages – Managing Unwieldy Amounts of Information

December saw the annual gathering of government negotiators, NGO representatives, and civil society at the Conference of the Parties, where UNFCCC Member States address the rule-making and implementation of international climate action. 25,000 people were at this year’s meeting in Madrid, Spain, including several from the office where I interned this fall, the Office of Global Change, the climate office at the U.S. Department of State.

There are a range of topics to discuss at these negotiations, and around 200 Parties that are represented. Successful discussion requires a high degree of preparation on the part of participants. With so many topics and views on the table, information gathering and synthesis is key to preparation. 

The flags of the world on display at the Department of State provide a visual reminder of the complexity of international negotiations. Each represented party has unique interests to incorporate into discussions.

 

Communication skills – From schoolwork to workforce

In my first blog post about my CEP internship in this office, I touched on how information gathering is a major part of staying ahead of a topic as dynamic as climate policy. Information is needed to develop positions, strategies, and partnerships.

This sort of task was one of the most involved parts of my internship. In my time in this position, I generated news clips, meeting summaries, and topic and position briefs on several topics.

Most of the approaches that brought me success in my communications were things I was exposed to in my coursework at CEP. I was able to adapt these concepts to be well-suited to the context of this office.

In this position, the skills that I had to develop the most were the identification of key views, the utilization of the user’s established positions, and the identification of relevant next steps.

Negotiations are not just about your position, but also the way that position fits with those you are negotiating with. Understanding others is key to successful outcomes. This idea is captured in this quote on display in the National Museum of American Diplomacy in Washington D.C.

 

Identify key players

These negotiations are collaborative, and built on relationships between Member States. They are also driven by those individual Member States’ positions. This domestic-international dynamic increases the range of information that must be managed.

One approach to managing the number of perspectives is to focus on groups of similar voices. In the case of negotiation, these groups may have formed from related agreements or from negotiating blocs, such as the EU bloc, or the Umbrella Group, which includes the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Other important voices might be the Member States that spearheaded an initiative, those that have unique perspectives, or those that have a position that would not be compatible with another notable position.

 

Maintain continuity

Part of managing the domestic elements of information involves contributing to continuity across time, decisions, and communications. This requires understanding the goals of the office, the history of the office, and the driving forces in decision making. While knowing the audience is important in all communications, it is particularly important when writing is meant to aid decision-making.

Past documents from the organization, and those of bodies they are a member of, are excellent tools. These can be used to model source-selection, tone, and what background information has already been established. There may also be a useful set of external decisions and communications from partners, or in the case of a government agency like the Department of State, from other government agencies.

 

Highlight actionable items

The above approaches do help focus the information, but the basic need to be concise and filter out unnecessary details still applies.

The main question that your reader will be asking is “what can I do with this information?”

A good rule of thumb for deciding what to include, or how to include it, is whether omitting it changes the user’s position. If I were summarizing the findings of a report on a carbon emissions solution, I would focus on the environmental outcomes, and what sectors it applies to. These would help the reader decide if the solution was useful to their interests. I would not provide all of the specifications of the technology being tested.

 

Take time to save time

Pulling together a concise, useful piece of writing requires reflection and revision. Taking the time to consider the relevance and utility of the information that is included leads to better writing. This in turn saves the user time in having to extract the important parts themselves, and allows the writing to stand on its own, often saving the writer time in having to explain the piece or rewriting it.

A summary is often more than just a summary. It is a tool for the reader, and has to be crafted carefully.

 

The views expressed are the author’s and do not represent the views of the U.S. government.

About Rachel Dunn